What role does the story of Cain and Abel play in East of Eden?
The Biblical tale of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel first comes up when Samuel and Lee have ganged up on Adam to get him to finally name his newly born twin sons. Samuel jokingly suggests naming them after the Biblical Adam’s first sons, Cain and Abel, though he says, “I know we can’t. That would be tempting whatever fate there is.” When the men try to remember the story, and reread it from Lee’s Bible, they muse on its meaning—Adam, for instance, thinks that Cain was unfairly treated by God. Claiming that men are the descendants of Cain, Adam also concludes that this means man is predisposed toward sin: “Some of our gult is absorbed in our ancestry. What chance did we have? We are the children of our father. It means we aren’t the first. It’s an excuse, and there aren’t enough excuses in the world.”
Immediately after this discussion, Adam names his boys other Biblical names, which, however, still fulfill the “C” and “A” –named brothers pattern: the twin boys are named Caleb and Aaron. The Cain and Abel echoes of their names foreshadows Caleb’s ‘betrayals’ of his brother Aaron, little and big, including telling him that their mother has become a whorehouse madam (Cathy- another “C” name!) The naming chapter also reaches back to the foregoing story of Adam’s own difficult childhood with his brother Charles, as they both fought for their father’s attention, much like in the Cain and Abel story.
Ultimately, that story also holds the key to the novel’s moral: Lee sets a team of Chinese scholars to learn Hebrew in order to better decipher the meaning of the Bible story. They discover that when God tells Cain to go forth, the word he uses in his prophetic decree, “timshel,” means “thou mayest”; God tells Cain that he “may” triumph over the sin in himself. This contradicts Adam’s earlier despairing comment that man is doomed to sin. Adam and Charles eventually reconcile, and Aaron and Caleb settle their differences. The old patterns can be broken, it seems.